Pearl Jam: Immagine in Cornice Review

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s warm ode to rock and roll, fictional guitarist Russell Hammond begs of his young chronicler William Miller to “just make us look cool” in the piece the teenage Miller is writing about Hammond’s up-and-coming band for Rolling Stone. Though Pearl Jam is seventeen years and eight albums into their career, there’s a certain “just make us look cool” element to their newest DVD, Immagine in Cornice. For fans, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Little clips of band members off stage either behind the scenes or just enjoying some time to themselves are interspersed with concert footage from last year’s five-night stand in Italy to rousing effect. Still, if you’re looking for great insight into how a successful group have managed to stand the test of time without imploding then you’re better off looking elsewhere. Any tension or hint of a fly in the ointment has been excised. For those who remember the band’s excellent first DVD Single Video Theory, which was executive produced by Crowe and focused on the recording of their album Yield, don’t expect the candor and insight found there in this new offering. Gimme Shelter or Don’t Look Back this is not.

Rabid fans are instead left with images of lead singer Eddie Vedder practicing his Italian backstage or bassist Jeff Ament hopping a fence to gain entry at a skate park. If you’ve ever wanted to find out more information about guitarist Mike McCready’s tattoos, that’s here too. I wish there was more though. Over an hour and a half of footage and no interviews with guitarist Stone Gossard or drummer Matt Cameron? Keyboardist Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar gets a nice chance to play an original composition on a Pistoia cathedral organ, but he’s not heard from either. That’s half of Pearl Jam unspoken for. For a band well known as a highly collaborative group, with every band member contributing songs over their career, it’s disappointing to not spend any time with vital parts of the whole.

Director and photographer Danny Clinch is a long-time friend of the band so I guess it makes sense that Immagine in Cornice would serve as more of a mildly revealing tribute than an exploratory dive into the band's thoughts and habits, strengths and weaknesses. Anyone familiar with Pearl Jam will probably know that the band members seem to value privacy and independence. It's probably unlikely that someone outside their inner circle would have been given access to the band at all, much less anything more telling than what we see here. If that's the case, then this type of concert film may be as close as we're likely to get to anything resembling "a week in the life of Pearl Jam."

But what about the music, isn’t that the main point? Well yeah, of course. It’s just that this is the fifth officially released DVD from Pearl Jam, with three of those only showing concert performances. Each has been excellent, but each of the concert DVDs has also had well over the 93 minutes worth of music found here, not counting bonus songs. The band’s second DVD, Touring Band 2000, was a single disc, but had 28 full length songs from the 2000 tour plus a few extras. Live at the Showbox featured an entire concert, 24 songs worth, in a small venue the band played in Seattle as a warm up to their 2003 tour. Their most previous release, Live at the Garden, was a double-disc set that spoiled fans with 30 songs from the first night of a two-night stand at “the world’s most famous arena,” Madison Square Garden, in July 2003. It was also well stocked with extra features. In comparison, Immagine in Cornice has a skimpy 13 concert tracks and a few other odds and ends.

Some of the odds and ends are outstanding, like Vedder solo at soundcheck performing the opening of “Immortality” before an empty arena or an inspired rendition of “Lukin” with Vedder and McCready vigorously strumming acoustic guitars on the steps of the Arena di Verona. There’s also a performance of Tom Waits’ "Picture in a Frame" (which, when translated into Italian, becomes "Immagine in Cornice" and lends its name to this DVD’s title). That’s what I was looking for here and that’s what I wanted more of - not watching “Porch” go into “Even Flow” then “Better Man” followed by “Alive.” I’ve seen Pearl Jam in concert many times, across multiple states, countries and continents, and those four songs shouldn’t comprise roughly a third of this DVD. Lest I sound grumpy (I’m not, really; I love this band like a member of the family), it’s not that I remotely disliked the new DVD, only that I feel the song selection leaves something to be desired. More than simply being weighted down by the "hits," Immagine in Cornice is nearly drowned by them - five songs from the most recent, self-titled album, three from Ten, one from Vs., two from Vitalogy, one from the Singles soundtrack, and a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” That leaves No Code, Yield, Binaural, and Riot Act - and fans of those albums - out in the cold (though, as mentioned, “Lukin” is briefly featured and “Love Boat Captain” from the latter album does play during the final credits).

Any complaints I have are more about missed opportunities than what’s on Immagine in Cornice. Pearl Jam played their newest album in order, in its entirety, at the Torino show, something they haven’t done since playing all of Ten (when they only had one album in their repertoire) one time in 1992. Including something like that would have been a thoughtful gift to fans. Everything we do get is sure to warm the hearts of the Pearl Jam faithful everywhere. Crumbs of insight are sparingly spread out, but worthwhile nonetheless. Vedder always comes across as passionate, respectful and genuinely interested in the world around him. McCready appears as nice and without rock star ego as one could imagine. The rest of the band seem like a well-oiled machine - no frills, no nonsense. The performances are everything concert goers love and expect from a band known for playing set lists of thirty songs or more over upwards of three hours.

The Disc

The R2 (also compatible with R3, R4, & R5) DVD is NTSC encoded and the video quality is exemplary. Concert footage appears to have been shot in high definition and it looks incredible. Bursting colours, deep blacks and fine detail are all exhibited without flaw. It looks significantly better than the other Pearl Jam concert DVDs, which have frequently retained an amateur feel. This one is professional grade all the way. Some of the non-concert portions were obviously shot in lesser formats, even including Super-8. As to be expected, this can look quite grainy and rough. The transfer itself though is fine, and presented in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen. The varying levels of quality among the film and digital formats isn't as distracting as one might think, instead giving some of the non-concert footage more of a home movie feel.

Two audio options are given, both clean and decidedly impressive. The 2-channel PCM Stereo track is very clear and sounds great. It's dwarfed by the spectacular Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track though. The DD 5.1 lets listeners feel like they're hearing every audience scream and clap. Rear channels are used quite nicely and really accentuate how much this feels like you're at a show. Just as Immagine in Cornice looks better than any of the other Pearl Jam DVD releases, it sounds better as well. Outside of being there, this is the closest replication of the Pearl Jam concert experience yet.

Presumably because this disc is playable in regions 2 through 5, subtitles are provided for English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. When Italian is spoken in the feature, automatic English subtitles come on the screen. They do not appear to be removable.

Supplemental features are a bit lacking in comparison to Pearl Jam's two previous wide releases (not counting the fan club exclusive Live at the Showbox), but I'll take the quality over quantity approach. Three additional songs are included. Eddie Vedder with tour opener My Morning Jacket cover The Who's classic "A Quick One While He's Away" (8:59). Vedder also plays a solo pre-set version of the Hunters and Collectors song "Throw Your Arms Around Me" (4:12). Finally, frequent show closer "Yellow Ledbetter" (5:30) finishes out the bonus tracks. Each of these is presented in both PCM Stereo and DD 5.1 and they look and sound just as good as the concert footage in the main feature. A 24-page booklet is listed as an additional supplement on many online retailer sites. The studio wasn't kind enough to send that along for me to look at, but I'll assume it's included with the package.

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